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Vol. LXIV, No. 3
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
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Recreation Department, Corner House Express Interest in Valley Road Space

Ellen Gilbert

Princeton Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts and Corner House Executive Director Gary J. De Blasio figured prominently in the Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) discussion about the future of the Valley Road building at its meeting last week.

Mr. Roberts reiterated the Recreation Department’s interest in partnering with Corner House to create a physical fitness and social center in a new space that would replace the older part of the building, which has fallen into serious disrepair. The building’s owners, Princeton Board of Education, occupies a newer portion of it along Valley Road, where they recently installed new windows.

Corner House is already an occupant of the existing building, which Mr. De Blasio described as “unsafe and unhealthy.” Despite investing nearly $200,000 in building improvements, he noted that his staff “has really been exposed to a lot of difficulties and challenges. I feel that that’s an important piece of information to know when considering whether to preserve a building. No one talked about conditions there with me or my staff, some of whom have been in the building for 10 and 15 years. There are staff sitting in an office surrounded by black mold. The building is structurally unsafe. There comes a point in time when a building really needs to die, and it’s time to move on.”

Corner House is a joint agency of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough that seeks to promote the health and well-being of Princeton area young people and their families through prevention, education, and treatment programs. Mr. De Blasio described it as heavily trafficked. “We serve our clients well,” he observed. “Our goal is to create a new space that would address all of our program needs.” With respect to the shabby condition of the building, he noted that as “a licensed health care facility, we do have to meet certain standards.”

Mr. Roberts said that “The Recreation Department did an extensive master plan about two years ago. Part of that plan was a wish list for facility improvements, that evolved into a genuine interest in the old section footprint of the Valley Road Building.” He added, however, that “we have no funding.”

Mr. Roberts ascribed his presence at the HPC meeting to comments made by commission member Avril Moore at a recent School Board Facilities Committee meeting, to the effect that the HPC endorses preservation of the building. He wondered about the background for this statement.

Ms. Moore responded by saying that she was at that meeting as a representative of HPC chair David Schure. “We don’t have jurisdiction, but we can be part of the discussion,” she observed.

Asking that he also be “part of the discussion about the future of the building,” Mr. Roberts said that he “has a lot of documentation, including potential plans for use of building.” He pointed out that due to the scarcity of available gyms, the Recreation Department now needs to rent space at area private schools, and that an arrangement with Princeton University’s Dillon gym is about to come to an end. He cited the “social value” of the Valley Road Building’s central location, noting that right now “kids have to be driven from here to Kalmazoo” for sports practice.

Besides being inconvenient, renting spaces elsewhere is costly, noted Princeton Recreation Department board member Mike Finkelstein. “If this place is built,” he said, speaking of the proposed new facility, “it will be fully programmed 24/7 through partnerships with organizations like the Senior Resource Center, Corner House, and TV30.” Mr. Roberts added that “if built correctly,” locker rooms and other facilities in the new space could be of potential use by district schools.

Township Committee liaison Chad Goerner pointed out that the footprint for the older portion of the Valley Road Building “was always vague,” and that funding is an ongoing issue. He suggested that a collaboration between the Township and Borough to pay rent to the school board for new construction would require “a flexible footprint to use the facility in a way that best serves the needs of the community.” 

The Historic Preservation Commission agreed to discuss alternative proposals for use of the old portion of the Valley Road Building at a later meeting.

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